Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Havana Tuesday after calling for Cuba to open up more, prompting the vice president to declare no political reforms were on the horizon for the communist-ruled island.
The 84-year old pontiff was due to meet President Raul Castro at the Palace of the Revolution, the seat of communist power, and possibly with revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, the current president's brother, Vatican officials said.
But just as the pope arrived for a visit that includes a huge mass Wednesday, Cuba's vice president declared there would be "no political reforms" introduced on the communist island, despite a call one day earlier from Benedict for greater openness.
"In Cuba, there will be no political reforms. In Cuba, what we are talking about is an updating of our Cuban economic model, which makes our own form of socialism more sustainable, for the well-being of our people," said Havana's number two official Marino Murillo, speaking at a press conference.
At the start of his visit on Monday, Benedict urged tens of thousands at a mass in southeastern Santiago to help construct a "renewed and open society."
But Cuba's leadership insists democracy already exists here, and sees the papal visit as a way to show to the world that it is tolerant and open to religious expression.
Murillo, who is in charge of carrying out the economic reform program ordered over the past few years by President Raul Castro, said Tuesday that a radical overhaul of the founding model of the revolutionary society here was a pipedream.
The pontiff is due to celebrate a mass Wednesday in Revolution Square with as many as one million people before departing later in the day.
Before flying to Havana, Benedict visited a shrine outside Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.
The pontiff's Cuba visit coincides with the 400th anniversary year of the discovery of a small wooden statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre floating in the water off the shores of eastern Cuba.
The pope offered a prayer to the beloved wooden statue of the virgin, patron saint of Cuba, asking that she help the country on its "path of renewal and hope."
The pontiff, on his first tour of Spanish-speaking Latin America and the first visit to Cuba by a pope in 14 years, is seeking to bolster closer church-state ties with Havana.
Benedict called on inhabitants of this mainly secular island nation to embrace Catholic teachings, which for decades had been banned following the communist revolution, but have been tolerated since a thaw began a few years ago.
Benedict has no plans to meet with members of the Cuban opposition, a decision which has drawn criticism from dissidents, democracy advocates and some members of the media. Among those seeking an audience with the pontiff are leaders of the Ladies in White one of the island's best-known rights groups.
Authorities have reportedly rounded up at least 150 dissidents in the days leading up to the papal visit to thwart any possible demonstrations during the pope's visit.
There has been talk that the pontiff could cross paths here with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been in Cuba since the weekend for a new round of cancer treatment.
Catholics account for just 10 percent of Cuba's population of about 11 million. The church nonetheless has emerged as the most important non-state actor in Cuba, even mediating prisoner releases.
After John Paul II's 1998 visit, expectations were high that the charismatic Polish pontiff might help spark change in Cuba after decades of central-run government, economy and media. But more than a decade later the country remains isolated, its state-run economy feeble and most Cuban workers struggling on a paltry salary of just $20 a month.
Pilgrims who traveled to Cuba from around the region to see the pope included some from Florida in the United States, home to the world's largest concentration of Cuban exiles.
Activist exiles in Key West, Florida, were dispatching a flotilla, which was due to arrive near Cuba around dusk, and were planning to set off a fireworks show in international waters off Cuba's shores.
"It's a peaceful gesture in international waters," Ramon Saul Sanchez, one of the organizers, told AFP.
Source: AFP Global Edition